It’s hailed as the best hike in all of Europe. Sweeping mountains views, gorgeous rivers, and rolling fields of wildflowers all in an easy six hour trek from the village of Valbona to the village of Theth in Albania.
We started in Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro. Our plan was to catch a bus to Shkodër, Albania, where we would transfer to another bus, then a ferry, then another bus, and we’d be at the trail head four days after we set out. Yep, four days just to get to the trail head. It’s that great of a hike.
If you’ve intuited from the headline of this post that we never made the hike, you’re right. But it was still a worthwhile trip. The ferry ride alone was one of the most pleasant two hours we’ve ever spent on a boat.
There were a bunch of minivans waiting on the dock in Fierze, so we started asking around for a bus to Valbona. We ended up in someone’s car along with a few other tourists, and it was here that we got our first inkling that maybe this wasn’t going to be our day.
The driver said the trail was snowed in. The Singaporean tourists in the car were debating whether to try to do the hike anyway, even though people have died trying to make the crossing in the snow. We were not overly encouraged by this.
On the upside, we learned that there were some Frenchmen making the trek from the Theth side and had made reservations to stay at the driver’s guesthouse in Valbona that night. “If they make it, you can make it,” our driver said. “If they don’t make it, probably you won’t either.” He laughed then, either at the soundness of his own logic or because he’s a fan of gallows humor.
Without asking, the guy took us to his guesthouse. He quoted us €15 a night, including breakfast and dinner. His wife and two teenage kids lived there too. His wife had firm hands and a warm smile, and his kids were as broody as any teenagers, but they were quick to offer help if we needed it. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember any of their names.
We’ve traveled to a lot of beautiful places at this stage in our sabbatical, but none have so far made me envious of another person’s backyard.
I’m sure those teenagers think they’re growing up in the most boring place on earth, and they can’t wait to leave. I couldn’t get over how lucky they were. When I said so, they all looked at me with a mixture of pride and disbelief.
We went for a couple of short hikes around Valbona, and when we returned for dinner, sure enough, the Frenchmen were there. They were tired. It turns out they lost the trail in the snow and a six hour hike turned into a nine hour hike. What walked into the dining room that night were a couple of 20-somethings with cold, wet feet and no food for nine hours. They were lucky they made it.
So we decided not to test our luck and took the ferry back the next day. We may not have experienced the best hike in all of Europe, but we were not disappointed in the beauty of the landscape or the generosity of the people. And the homemade, traditional Albanian food was delicious.
Let this be a lesson to future generations of destination hikers. Sometimes it’s only half the journey that counts.